Proposed legal changes: Gag order on victims of sexual or child abuse to kick in once offence is reported

The counselling room for victims of sexual crimes at Police Cantonment Complex.
The counselling room for victims of sexual crimes at Police Cantonment Complex. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - To better protect the vulnerable during the criminal justice process, a gag order on victims of sexual or child abuse will kick in the moment an offence is reported.

The use of physical screens in court to shield them from direct contact with the accused person will also be introduced.

These are among the 18 suggestions in the area of enhancing court procedures and evidence that the Ministry of Law is exploring as proposed changes to the Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act. A month-long public consultation process will begin on Monday (July 24).

Currently, victims' identities are protected when an application for a gag order is made in court. This is set to change, with the publication of details identifying the victim prohibited from the time a police report is lodged.

Other changes include in-camera (closed-door) hearing kicking in automatically when victims of sexual and child abuse crimes testify in court, unless they wish to give evidence in open court.

The courts may also allow a physical screen to be used to shield the victim from seeing the accused person.

In addition, lawyers will not be permitted to ask victims questions about their sexual history or activities, including their appearance or behaviour, unless permission is granted by the court.

 

Last August (2016), lawyer Edmund Wong Sin Yee was rapped by a district judge for his "indecent, scandalous" line of questioning during criminal proceedings for an outrage of modesty case. The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) later filed a disciplinary complaint to the Law Society against him.

Court procedures will also be enhanced to allow only psychiatrists from a court-administered panel to give expert evidence on criminal cases.

There are currently no restrictions on psychiatrists who can give evidence in court.

This comes after the courts, in some past cases, have noted that the psychiatric evidence lacked objectivity and competence.

For instance, in 2014, the High Court took issue with a medical report produced to support Indian national Mehra Radhika's plea for a reduced punishment.

She had pleaded guilty to arranging a marriage of convenience between a female Singaporean and an Indian national to make it easier for the latter to get a work permit and extend his stay here.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon had noted that the medical report had gave an explanation for Mehra's criminal conduct that was "exceedingly favourable" to her.

The MinLaw said that the panel, which will admit qualified psychiatrists for a term of two years, will ensure that evidence given in court is competently arrived at and objective.

Also to be introduced is a Criminal Procedure Rules Committee, chaired by the Chief Justice and comprising 12 other members.

The committee will have the power to prescribe court-related procedural rules to keep court processes up-to-date. These rules must be approved by the Chief Justice and the Law Minister.

All cases for trial in the High Court will also be streamlined, with the removal of the commital hearing process, which is a process that determines if there is sufficient evidence to commit an accused person for trial.

Currently, there is an exception for serious sexual offences, which are automatically transmitted to the High Court.